Hearts produced a resilient display against Kilmarnock in the Ladbrokes Premiership to make it back-to-back clean sheets and stop a run of four consecutive away defeats.
The hard-earned point at Rugby Park did little to aid the Tynecastle side’s Europa League prospects, as they are four points adrift of fourth-place St Johnstone, who have a game in hand at home to Aberdeen today.
However, after an underwhelming first half in which neither side had any clear chances to score, the 600 Jambos who journeyed to Ayrshire to back their team could take heart from a spirited second-half display in which their team looked the likelier side to claim the points. Esmael Goncalves went closest to winning it for the visitors with a couple of late chances, while Kris Boyd did likewise for the hosts.
After ending a three-game losing streak against Dundee last weekend, it came as little surprise that Hearts head coach Ian Cathro named an unchanged starting line-up. This meant that Prince Buaben, ordinarily a midfielder, was again deployed in central defence alongside Krystian Nowak.
Kris Boyd, who ridiculed Cathro’s appointment in December and subsequently drew derision from the Hearts support during his side’s 4-0 defeat at Tynecastle, returned to the starting line-up in place of Conor Sammon, the ineligible on-loan Hearts striker. Once again, Jamie MacDonald, the former Jambos goalkeeper, had to settle for a place on the substitutes bench as on-loan Newcastle youngster Freddie Woodman.
After a low-key start to the match, Hearts, searching for their first win at Rugby Park since the 3-2 League Cup success in September 2015, got the first notable sight of goal in the 17th minute when a long ball over the top from Buaben put Goncalves in behind the home defence, but the Portuguese forward hooked his angled shot beyond the far post from 15 yards out.
The visitors were reasonably comfortable in the early stages and they almost carved out an opportunity in the 23rd minute when Arnaud Djoum played a sharp one-two with Goncalves to get himself into a promising position on the right but the Cameroon internationalist’s cutback was blocked before being scrambled behind by the home defence. From the resulting corner, Don Cowie rolled the ball back to Buaben on the edge of the box, but the Ghanaian’s powerful low shot was charged down.
Kilmarnock made a change in the 37th minute when Martin Smith went off to be replaced by Dean Hawkshaw. Most of the 4110 supporters in attendance were relieved to hear the half-time whistle sound after a 45 minutes which was short on excitement, spark and goalmouth incident at either end.
Hearts threatened early in the second half when Cowie’s corner to the near post was only partially headed clear but Perry Kitchen was closed down as he tried to lash in the loose ball from close range. Kilmarnock created their first clear chance in the 48th minute when Hawkshaw’s clever backheel wide on the right allowed Callum Roberts to burst into the penalty box but the winger’s low strike from 12 yards out went inches wide of Jack Hamilton’s left-hand post.
Home midfielder Sean Longstaff then drilled a low shot wide from the edge of the box before Liam Smith had to make a timely intervention at the back post to stop Boyd converting a dangerous low Hawkshaw delivery.
For all that Hearts had been fairly comfortable, it was clear that they were carrying little threat in the final third. They had to bring on teenager Rory Currie from introduced from the subs’ bench in place of the injured Buaben. This meant Tziolis shuffled back to centre-back and Djoum, who had started in a more advanced role, dropped slightly deeper into midfield alongside captain Kitchen.
Killie were beginning to crank up the heat on the visitors as the game approached the hour mark, and Tziolis had to be alert to cut out a dangerous inswinging cross at the near post.
Boyd then sent a half-volley over the bar from 15 yards out in the 57th minute after Jordan Jones’ broke to him in space.
Hearts went on to enjoy a brief period of pressure midway through the second half, with Goncalves heading a long diagonal Tziolis cross tamely into Woodman’s arms before the goalkeeper comfortably held a firm Djoum strike from just outside the box.
In the search for further penetration, the visitors introduced on-loan Stoke City winger Moha Choulay in place of Cowie. The Moroccan almost made a swift impact when he won a corner, which he then delivered to the near post, but Smith was unable to get enough on his header as it ran harmlessly wide of Woodman’s goal. Choulay darted down the left once more in the 74th minute but his tantalising delivery was just too high for the in-rushing Andraz Struna, who had by now switched from left-back to right wing-back.
Walker then saw a low shot trundle harmlessly into the arms of Woodman. It was to prove the attacker’s last notable impact on the game as he was replaced by Malaury Martin in the 80th minute. The Frenchman almost influenced the match instantly when he played a one-two with Struna to get himself clear in the box but his low shot was blocked by Woodman. Goncalves almost won it for Hearts with five minutes left but his powerful low strike was deflected inches wide by Iain Wilson. The Portuguese forward had another chance seconds later but was unable to apply the finishing touch to a low driven cross from Smith.
For all that Hearts had looked the likelier side to nick it, Killie went desperately close to a winner when Boyd rasped a low free kick narrowly wide from 20 yards out in the 89th minute. The Killie striker threatened again in stoppage time when he failed to get enough on a back-post header from a superb Jones delivery from the left.
It would have been cruel on Hearts, who were particularly well served by solid defensive performances from Smith, Tziolis and Nowak, if they had gone home with nothing to show for their effort.